State of the TA Unions

Organizers of graduate students convene to assess the year that was -- and to develop a national message.
August 14, 2006

The video had the same amateur quality as those that circulate on YouTube and other Internet sites. Set to the lyrics of “We’re Not Going to Take It,” a handheld camera followed friends of the graduate student unionization movement to a New York University alumni fund-raising event this past year that featured the unions’ public enemy of the moment, NYU President John Sexton. 

The party crashers did their best to disrupt the function, and the roughly 100 labor organizers from around the country who watched the screening on Friday -- some of whom appeared in the footage -- cheered the effort. If that wasn’t enough to stir the audience at the start of the 15th annual Coalition of Graduate Employees Union conference, in Philadelphia, former Yale University graduate student Carlos Aramayo’s challenge to his "brothers and sisters" set the tone.

“University administrators are trying to put together a national message, and we haven’t been good enough in pushing our movement,” said Aramayo, a representative from Graduate Employees and Student Organization at Yale

The administrators' agenda, according to speakers: increased centralization of power, and a more corporate model for graduate education.

The administrators' document of choice, speakers said, is a report released last fall by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation that speakers say decried the lack of strong leadership from deans at graduate schools and called for a more "cosmopolitan" approach to the Ph.D, that focuses on students' marketability. Aramayo said he does not want to see students pushed through their programs under a tight watch.

(Via e-mail, Earl Lewis, Emory University's provost and a leader in the foundation's Ph.D. initiative, said the report was about helping graduate students. "We looked at mentor-mentee relations, time-to-degree, diversity, jobs inside and outside of the academy, community-based scholarship and the development of citizen scholars. Today we face ever greater competition from abroad and our preeminent standing is not guaranteed. To remain in a leading position we must periodically examine how well we are meeting the need of all involved -- faculty, students and their employees.")

Anita Seth, staff organizer at GESO, said while conditions for graduate employees have generally improved over the past 10 years, including better tuition breaks for Ph.D. students and improved health benefits, "I feel like we aren't winning on issues that are most important to us," she said. Foremost is the need to rely less on adjunct and non-tenure track faculty, Seth said. 

Representatives from teaching assistant unions at public institutions said they worry that a 2004 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that classified graduate assistants as students, rather than workers, will embolden their own administrators to be tougher on TA unions. Some speakers already said they have found negotiating a new contract to be harder since the ruling, which applies only to private institutions, as publics are governed by state labor laws. But speakers did not cite specific examples of how the NLRB ruling was having an impact outside of NYU.

Jack P. Nightingale, assistant director of the American Federation of Teachers organization and field services department, said the movement should see some of its greatest successes at public colleges, where the NLRB doesn't have authority. “That’s where we are concentrating our efforts until we exhaust that group,” Nightingale said. "It's about changing the political landscape state by state."  He said 1,400 full-time, non-tenure track faculty have in recent years joined AFT in Michigan, a state where the graduate unionization effort has seen some gains, including a first contract at Western Michigan University.

Graduate student union leaders from public institutions had the majority of good news to share during a conference tradition where attendees take turns updating each other on the past year. Scott Bruton, one of the graduate student leaders at Rutgers’ American Association of University Professors-AFT chapter said that stipends and health benefits are improving. In the latest contract, teaching assistants and graduate assistants at Rutgers no longer have to pay an annual $1,100 student fee, and annual pay also increased from $14,000 to $18,000, Bruton said.

At the University of Oregon, teaching assistants will receive a 10 percent raise over two years, according to Aaron Greer of the Graduate Teaching Fellow Federation-AFT chapter. Mark Supanich, political education committee chairman of the Teaching Assistants' Association, the AFT local at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said he is heartened when new graduate student chapters open. "You can’t just worry about yourself," he said. "You have to set precedent and fight on a broad range. This has to be a national movement.”

And the conference had a focus on national issues. Sessions ranged from “Implementing National Contract Standards,” to “Building Campus Coalitions” to "Lobbying/Political Mobilization." Jane Buck, the former president of AAUP who was arrested for disorderly conduct for blocking a street in front of NYU, urged attendees to use her organization's resources.

The NYU graduate student labor strike served as the backdrop for many discussions. Bruton said groups at the conference voted to make the strike a focal point of the coming year. Michael Palm, chairperson of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at the university, said even though the strike had taken its toll on the organizers, he "feels like a rock star" at the convention, which is a good place to recharge before the battle continues in the fall.  

The conflict at NYU is over the right of graduate students at private institutions to unionize. NYU's GSOC is the only official graduate assistant union to have ever won recognition at a private institution, but the university exercised its legal right to stop dealing with the union after the NLRB ruling. NYU officials say that the union has hurt the academic management of the university and that there are other means besides a union to represent graduate students. Many graduate students with teaching duties returned to work in the spring, and some doubt remains about GSOC's ability to get NYU back to the bargaining table. But there wasn't much doubt among the convention faithful.

“We’re behind you 100 percent,” Michael Janson, a member of Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania, told the NYU contingent. “We’re going to win. This is our most important fight.”

Arayamo said the situation has already shown the graduate student organizations' collective spirit -- representatives from Yale, University of Illinois and University of Massachusetts, among others, joined their NYU peers for rallies and protests during the past year. Susan Valentine, a spokeswoman for NYU's GSOC, said the movement is about collectivity. “Their work is the same work we do [At NYU]. We are looking for respect, whether or not we’re at a public or a private college,” she said.

Aramayo said coalition building -- with both undergraduate students, full-time faculty and other non-graduate student unions -- is vital. Part of the challenge, numerous speakers mentioned, is in convincing both administrators and outsiders that graduate students are employees whose work is considered true labor. Or, as Oregon's Greer put it: "So far the message has been, 'We teach college for Christ’s sake. We aren't replaceable.'"


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